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Understanding America’s Decline

Unfortunately, no one understands it better than Thomas Sowell.

By 8.20.10

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Dismantling America
by Thomas Sowell
(Basic Books, 341 pages, $27.95)

America, it seems, is always in decline.

Searching through Amazon.com reveals plenty of works arguing that America's best days are behind her. From the 1974 novel The Decline and Fall of America; to William Dietrich's 1991 book, In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline, about Japan's inevitable surpassing of America economically; to the more recent The Death of the West by the always upbeat Patrick Buchanan, most such works of gloom-and-doom have usually been followed by years of tremendous peace and prosperity. After a while it is hard to take any book about American decline seriously.

However, if there a reason to treat the idea of our society's fall with grave concern, it is that a book has now been written about it by Thomas Sowell.

Entitled Dismantling America, it is a collection of some of his more recent newspaper columns grouped into five sections -- government policies, political issues, economic issues, cultural issues, and legal issues -- with some added commentary beginning each section.

Sowell's thesis is encapsulated in the following passage:

The collapse of a civilization is not just the replacement of rulers or institutions with new rulers and new institutions. It is the destruction of a whole way of life and the painful, and sometimes pathetic, attempts to begin rebuilding amid the ruins.

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Is that where American is headed? I believe it is. Our only saving grace is that we are not there yet.

The decline of America is a theme that has increasingly preoccupied Sowell's work, and it might be tempting to dismiss it as a natural occurrence of age. A little earlier this year, Sowell became an octogenarian. As the British writer Samuel Johnson once said:

Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation. He recounts the decency and regularity of former times, and celebrates the discipline and sobriety of the age in which his youth was passed; a happy age which is now no more to be expected, since confusion has broken in upon the world, and thrown down all the boundaries of civility and reverence.

Yet Sowell seems to be well aware of such sentiment. For example, in the random thoughts portion of the book, Sowell states, "Despite people who speak glibly about 'earlier and simpler times,' all that makes earlier times seem simpler is our ignorance of their complexities."

Further, Sowell has not rushed into this subject lightly. Indeed, he appears to have wrestled with it at length. In a previous book, Sowell said that while he sometimes got depressed about the future of this great nation, he once asked the Nobel economist and libertarian Friedrich Hayek if he was pessimistic or optimistic about the future. Hayek replied "Optimistic!" and pointed out that in the 1940s he had been a lonely voice against government intervention in the economy, but that in the decades since his ideas about liberty had proliferated. Thus, Sowell has been concerned about this subject for some time, and if he is convinced America is in decline, we would do well to consider his warning.

Sowell points to the Obama Administration as a prime example of America's decline. Obama has had no problem appointing "czars" who determine the salary of corporate executives, praise mass murderers like Chairman Mao, or believe public schools are the place to promote sexual practices that most Americans find objectionable. He seems eager to ram legislation thousands of pages long through Congress before the American public has adequate time to know what is in it and enthusiastic about a panel (now called the Independent Payment Advisory Board) that will make life-and-death decisions about medical care.

But Sowell does not view Obama so much as a cause of America's decline as the embodiment of trends set in motion decades ago. One such trend is the gradual relinquishing to an elite of intellectuals the liberty that rightly belongs with individuals. These elites -- comprised of politicians, academics, journalists and judges -- are infected with the belief that they are qualified to make decisions for the rest of us. Sowell warns of the disaster that they can do: "There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs."

In the column "Playing Freedom Cheap," Sowell warns against the "dangerous power toward which we are moving, bit by bit, on the installment plan… of politicians to tell people what their incomes can and cannot be." To achieve this, the elite foment resentment against "the rich" and distract the public with phrases like "obscene wealth" and "unconscionable profits." Sowell argues:

But if we stop and think about it -- which politicians don't expect us to -- what is obscene about wealth? Wouldn't we consider it great if every human being on earth had a billion dollars?

Poverty is obscene. It is poverty that needs to be reduced -- and increasing a country's productivity has done that far more widely that redistributing income by targeting the rich.

Yet it is redistribution of income, and not increasing productivity, that enables elites to fulfill their self-anointed role of deciding what is best for the rest of us. Sowell warns that the power to tell people what incomes they can and cannot make "will not apply to everyone all at once. Like the income tax…the power to say what incomes people can be allowed to make will inevitably move down the income scale to make us all dependents and supplicants of politicians."

Elites convince us to yield our liberty by use of rhetoric, and their ability to create emotionally satisfying phrases is considerable. Consider the debate over ObamaCare. Terms like "health care for all," "affordable coverage," and "shared responsibility" -- who could be against any of those? That we will now be forced to buy health insurance whether we want it or not, that politicians and bureaucrats will determine what medical conditions insurance must cover, and that we will eventually face rationing of care in order to hold down costs were things that such rhetoric was intended to obscure.

Unfortunately, flowery rhetoric that obscures reality can have serious consequences beyond shoddy medical care. Sowell writes:

One of the many symptoms of this decay from within is that we are preoccupied with the pay of corporate executives while the leading terrorist-sponsoring nation on earth is moving steadily toward creating nuclear bombs. Does anyone imagine that we will care what anyone's paycheck is when we see an American city is in radioactive ruins?

The dangers that Iran poses to the U.S. are glossed over in nice sounding words like "world opinion" and the "international community," as though Iran were just a recalcitrant member of an extended family that can be talked into behaving. As Sowell has noted, President Obama, who has achieved little except through rhetoric, apparently believes that with words alone he can convince the Iranians into giving up their nuclear weapons program.

Sowell examines the numerous factors that make it increasingly difficult for the public to see through nice-sounding rhetoric, from a culture that undermines moral values and promotes the "virtue" of being "non-judgmental," to propaganda emanating from Hollywood and the universities that denigrates this nation. But the biggest culprit Sowell singles out is the education system which now actively works against equipping students with the tools to analyze political arguments. He writes that students are often

fed a diet of the politically correct version of the world, from elementary school to the university…. Elementary as it may seem that we should hear both sides of an issue before making up our minds, that is seldom what happens on politically correct issues today in our schools and colleges…. Hearing only one side does nothing to equip students with the experience to know how to sort out opposing sides of other issues they will have to confront in the future, after they have left school and need to reach their own conclusions on the issues arising later. Yet they are the jury that will ultimately decide the fate of this nation.

According to Sowell, it "speaks volumes about the inadequacies of our educational system" that at this dangerous time in history our nation would elect "a man whose only qualifications to be President…were rhetoric, style and symbolism -- and whose animus against the values and institutions of America had been demonstrated repeatedly over a period of decades beforehand."

Nor would Obama's defeat in 2012 ensure our survival. The "gullibility and fecklessness of those voters who put him in the White House will still be there to be exploited by the next master of glib demagoguery and emotional images," Sowell warns.

Yet Sowell provides some glimmers of hope, albeit unintentionally. In one column he notes a San Francisco Chronicle article in which some people did not seem to understand how the health care legislation promoted by Obama and the Democrats could "cost $940 billion and cut the horrendous federal deficit at the same time."

"It's not hard to understand at all," Sowell writes. "It is a lie."

Fortunately, most Americans aren't buying it. Most opinion polls continue to show that more Americans disapprove of the new health care law than approve. A recent survey found that 49% of respondents believed that the law would add to the deficit, while another 37% were unsure. Ironically, the survey was commissioned by a liberal group in Washington D.C., the National Council on Aging. Sowell would not be surprised that the NCOA claimed the 14% who thought that it would reduce the deficit got the correct answer.

Is our decline inevitable? As Sowell notes, "nothing is inevitable until it happens." Recent polls and the phenomenon of the Tea Party movement suggest that, at the very least, there are still plenty of Americans who are not willing to accept a sorry fate lying down.

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About the Author

David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.